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Artist: Little Howlin' Wolf

Album: Cool Truth

Label: Heresee / Hanson

Review date: May. 20, 2010


Little Howlin' Wolf - "Cool Truth" (Cool Truth)


James Pobiega has enjoyed intermittent success throughout his forty-year career as a musician. A dedicated loner and listener, and a product of the Chicago street musician and theater scene of the 1970s and 80s, Pobiega has entranced fans of outsider music for a number of generations now. During his height as a street musician in the mid-80s, he self-released almost 40 7-inch singles, befriended minor celebrities (if you believe his stories) and garnished write-ups in a number of newspapers and periodicals, including People magazine. His output and notoriety all but disappears throughout the 90s before a resurgence of attention appeared in 2005 with his first full-length release in twenty years, Brand Nu World. With the help of the internet and a youth culture increasingly obsessed with aging niche and overlooked artists, Pobiega once again became a proud product of the ever-eclectic Chicago underground music scene.

A self-proclaimed “true Gypsy bluesman,” Pobiega has released his unique brand of avant-blues under such monikers as Little Howlin’ Wolf (along with at least two, if not more, Chicago blues musicians over the years), the Shadow Drifter, Deacon Blue and Buccaneer Bob. He has also run his own micro-imprint, Solidarity Solidarnosc Records, since the 1980s. His music is heavily influenced by his locale: Chicago blues disjointed by impulses of free jazz, moonshine country and New Orleans R&B. As Little Howlin’ Wolf, Pobeiga’s style sounds equally derived from Captain Beefheart, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dr. John, Sun Ra, Professor Longhair, Godz, Albert Ayler, and, of course, the original Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett himself. It’s both familiar and infinitely strange. And while listening to this compilation of singles, Cool Truth, incredibly hard to predict from one track to the next.

Perhaps the most notable release of Pobiega’s 80s output, Cool Truth was first self-released on Solidarity Solidarnosc in 1985. With just over 50 minutes of music, it featured singles recorded between 1979 and 1983 in Chicago, Toronto, Milwaukee and the “Illinois River Banks.” Pobiega is responsible for every sound heard as he divides his time between guitar, harmonica, bass, drums, sax, flute, marimba, clarinet, piano, morocca and mouth bow. The two sides of the original LP are rather distinct: Side A being dedicated to the more jazz and free-form inflected tunes, while Side B is more traditionally bluesy with a Cajun feel.

From Side A, tracks like “Cool Truth,” “Mighty Love,” and “Ten Steps of a Broken Heart” are the most typical of the Little Howlin’ Wolf sound, if such a thing exists. A primal Chicago blues core is buried beneath overdubbed lines of knotty free form playing. Rhythms stutter, any sort of melody is momentary, and outbursts of harmonica and saxophone negate any chance of deciphering Pobiega’s baritone chanting. “Rendezvous,” an instrumental, better showcases Pobiega’s ear for a more cohesive jazz sound. The main melodic elements of the tune – marimba, saxophone and a deep-toned guitar – never quite align, but the final product doesn’t sound that far off from an Art Ensemble of Chicago piece.

Side B kicks off with the most traditionally electric blues of the set, “Hokomo Juju Man.” After the two short previous tracks of voodoo chanting and drums, it makes for quite a stylistic dynamic. The following number, “Soul Magrib,” is the gem of the compilation though. While Pobiega’s sax playing is the most straight-ahead of the set, it’s bluesy mode matched with the subtle and empathetic accompaniment (all by Pobiega of course) feels soulful and yearning, an ode to the traditional styles that anchor his avant-garde experimentation. It’s an essential inclusion in this compilation. Without the songs exhibiting a more skillful level of musicianship, one might mistake the consciously boundary-pushing pieces for amateur schlock.

While James Pobiega’s notoriety as an outsider gem of the Chicago music scene is obviously still intact, he is much better known than he has ever been thanks to tireless excavators of niche music and the internet’s easy information. Cool Truth isn’t necessarily essential listening, but it’s an endlessly interesting when taken in context. Pobiega ingested all of the music surrounding him on the streets of Chicago in the late 70s and early 80s, and that influence birthed Little Howlin’ Wolf. His (maybe) inflated stories only reflect the curiosity of the era and locale, and his music makes him a living time capsule.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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